Using Stay at Home Time to Better Understand and Manage Your Child’s Online Gaming Practices

Even in normal times, parents complain about their children’s’ online gaming habits. They wonder why kids need to be online from the moment they return from school to all hours of the day, and why they do not prefer to spend in-person time with their peers or go outside rather than staying inside. At present, conflicts about being online may heighten as academics is being presented online. In some instances, parents struggle with children who prefer to be online rather than doing their school work, resulting in diminishing grades and performance. Yet, video gaming has become a primary pastime for children, adolescents, and even many adults, surpassing more traditional pursuits like television. Moreover, the kinds of questions noted above may reflect a lack of understanding of the importance and value of the virtual world for their children. How can parents gain and utilize this understanding while at the same time addressing their concerns about the effects of video gaming on their child and their family?

First, it will be important to gain a good understanding of the psychological and social value of gaming for kids. The kinds of games, and, even more importantly, the kind of characters with which kids identify can go a long way to understanding how the gaming is satisfying their underlying needs. Through the games, kids can engage in fantasy that allows them to do things they would ordinarily not do or be someone they would ordinarily not be. Children with social anxiety or depression can be different online. Difficult situations like confrontation can be more safely addressed online through fantasy solutions. The key here is taking this information and generalizing it to the real world. This is akin to what happens in play therapy where children can “play out” their issues and find solutions to them. In play therapy, the therapist is there as a guide. In the video gaming world, once parents gain an understanding of what the characters and emotions involved in the gaming are providing for their child, they, too, can serve as a guide. Implicit in all of the above is the strategy of joining with their child through showing a genuine interest in what is important to them, engaging them around it by having them share about the games they choose, the important characters, the characters successes or failures, etc. In this way, the experience of gaming can be collaborative instead of confrontational. Children can then feel understood and that parents care about what is important to them. Now, more than ever, the gaming experience provides a social outlet for kids and it is important not to throw the baby out with the bath water.

This in no way means that gaming schedules (or the lack thereof) that upset the balance of family life cannot be similarly discussed. However, the most constructive way to engage in these types of discussions is to use consultation strategies with children. That is, consulting with kids gives the same collaborative, joining experience rather than interrogation methods. Inviting kids to give their opinions even when we disagree provides a forum for discussion. Consulting does not “give away” parental authority. It just gives parents a better way to exercise their authority. Allowing kids to explain their points of view can help to understand them better, gives them a permission to express their objections, and allows you to discuss those objections. Agreeing to disagree in the open is better than having resentments fester, a situation that fosters bad feelings and acting out.



A Survival Guide for Parents During the Outbreak: Tips for Nurturing Parent-Child Relationships

If dealing with the constant flow of bad news about the outbreak were not enough, staying at home with your children can add a huge amount of stress. More than ever, relationships between parents and kids as well as between parents, will be tested and must be nurtured as they are the key to maintaining emotional regulation and well-being.

Here are some issues that have arisen thus far and some ideas about how to address them:

  • Minimize exposure to the media.  While this has been said repeatedly, it is so important that it is worth saying again. If you need the facts, go to a reliable source like the CDC website (gov). Hearing reports about how many people have become infected and died may inform you about the seriousness of the disease, but this is something we already know. Preserve yourself and your family by limiting this kind of exposure.
  • Discuss the online paradox with your kids. Paradoxically, the move to online instruction has complicated an already conflicted area of parent-child relationships. While many parents and kids struggle with each other about how much time to spend online and monitoring online content in normal times, the virtual world has now become primary in our stay in place environment. Nevertheless, parents will need to engage in discussions (note the plural!) with their kids about online use. Even where families have adequate access to devices for all members, an ongoing discussion should be started about how much to be online, and how to set parameters so that online academic instruction and online socializing and entertainment do not conflict. This should include:

setting a schedule for each type of activity. Here is another no brainer although often easier said than done. The key here is for parents to create a schedule together with their kids. Even though there may be disagreements about how much online time is to be scheduled and what type of activities, websites, etc., it is better to have objections voiced proactively before implementing a schedule. Otherwise, kids may violate the schedule when parents are not monitoring them. To go a step further, seek out objections because talking about disagreements lowers the probability of prohibitions being violated secretly.

revisiting schedules regularly. It is likely that revisions will have to be made to schedules or complaints will be voiced and the latter should be discussed in a regular weekly meeting. One way to proactively diminish acting out as a protest against a schedule perceived as unfair, is to set up a complaint box where kids and parents can drop their objections which would then be reviewed and discussed. Different family members can rotate in the job of director of complaints and collect the complaints and report on them in family meetings.

engaging kids as experts in technology and the web. Since many kids are more knowledgeable about technology and websites than some parents, embrace this and give struggles about online use a turn by having kids teach parents how to do things online, how to use different platforms, etc. Instead of fighting about online use, make this area a constructive activity by elevating kids to be the teachers.

scheduling non-online activities. Exercise remains an important part of a weekly schedule and whether this means taking a walk, a run, doing exercises at home, it is a way to burn off excess nervous energies and calories. Using online websites to direct exercising would be another way to use virtual life constructively.

arranging an online book club to discuss books that were read. Parents can arrange with other parents that their kids read material either provided by school or chosen on their own and then set up a virtual meeting to discuss what was read. This is another constructive way to use online life and will nurture social relationships as well.

  • Recognize that you or your kids may become more on edge than usual and be more irritable. Being inside in more confined ways leads to boundary problems and kids and adults may find they become angrier more quickly than usual or become angry out of proportion to the situation. Parents and kids may wish to use the following proactively:

Know your triggers

Stop yourself from an angry meltdown by removing yourself from the situation to create some distance

-Utilize breathing exercises ( or progressive muscle relaxation to “cool down”

-Return to the scene when calmer and have a discussion about your triggers. Ask offending family members what they were hoping to accomplish by activating your triggers. Try not to reward bad behavior by giving in to excessive or unreasonable demands in order to stop it as this will only heighten the probability of the demands recurring.

  • Most importantly, take care of yourself as a way of being available to others. This may sound naive when parents must care for kids and themselves, work at home, and procure food and other necessary items. However, the only other choice-not taking care of yourself-will not serve you well. All of the above applies to adults as well to maintain your emotional and physical well-being.
  • Constantly work to nurture relationships with your kids and adult partners as this is the key to surviving with the least amount of friction as possible. Talking can help.

Childhood Anxiety: The New Epidemic

Anxiety is the most common, chronic, costly emotional disorder in the U.S. (NIMH) and in 16 of 17 countries (WHO-2004). Moreover, the lifetime diagnosis of anxiety or depression among children aged 6 to 17 years increased from 5.4% in 2003 to 8.4% in 2011–2012. Current anxiety or depression increased from 4.7% in 2007 to 5.3% in 2011–2012 ( Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics: June 2018 – Volume 39 – Issue 5 – p 395–403. American Academy of Pediatrics). Foxman (2019) attributes the current state of affairs due to the influence of the post 9-11 world & “war on terrorism,” media  information overload & perceived threats,  and the economy.

“Normal” Anxiety is a physiological response that serves a survival function by alerting individuals to a potential life-threatening/dangerous situation. It can be a healthy emotion—it forces us to focus on our problems, and work hard to solve them. But sometimes, anxiety grows out of control, and does just the opposite. It cripples our ability to solve problems. When this happens, irrational thoughts often play a role. Pathological anxiety occurs when this survival response becomes generalized to situations that are not dangerous or life threatening and/or the intensity, frequency, and duration of response is out of proportion the situation.

Children grow/develop a sense of self through reflected appraisals from significant others (i.e. parents, teachers, peers). Parents,’, teachers, and peers’ faces act as mirrors and reflect back to children how they feel about them or how children make them feel. Positive reflections build an internalized sense of security and confidence while negative reflections build a negative sense of self. Exacerbating this natural process is the fact that about 20% of children have biological sensitivities that predispose them to developing anxiety under conditions like those cited above. In addition, since executive functions (EF), which have the role of regulating thinking and emotions, are developmentally the last part of the brain to fully mature (between 18 to 20 years of age), important EF like inhibition and emotional control are not fully available to “put on the brakes” when stimulation is too intense to digest. 

As a result, more children are presenting with separation anxiety that manifests itself as school refusal, generalized anxiety disorder with its’ somatic symptoms, panic disorder, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Therapeutic approaches include psychoanalytic, cognitive behavioral, as well as mindfulness and, when needed, medication. For parents and teachers, the fundamental principle governing the exposure of children to an overwhelming amount of stimulation is to consider limiting the demands by regulating the quantity and speed with which information is presented.  This includes media use which has become an increasingly larger factor in the development of worry.

While everyone experiences anxiety under certain conditions, when nervousness becomes frequent, intense, and occurs in situations where anxiety would be unexpected or the degree of anxiety is out of proportion to the events, it is time to consider speaking with a professional.


Important Facts When Testing for Learning Disorders

When testing to determine the presence of a specific learning disability (SLD), it is important to remember certain key facts.

First, it is essential to have a clear definition of a SLD. The accepted definition stated in the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) is:  “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, which disorder may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or do mathematical calculations.” Such term “includes such conditions as perceptual disabilities, brain injury, minimal brain dysfunction, dyslexia, and developmental aphasia.”  That is, there must be evidence of a cognitive processing deficit. It is important that the deficit be manifested functionally such that it clearly interferes with learning and performance. Moreover, the deficit in ability must be related theoretically with an academic subject that relies on this skill for success.

Second, there are times when the normative ability and achievement data do not match. For example, cognitive ability testing may indicate Average skills while achievement testing yields Above Average skills. Here, it is essential to keep in mind that overall ability scores like the IQ only explain 50% of the variations obtained. In the instance where achievement exceeds ability, other factors like good instruction, tutoring, practice, and the acquisition of compensatory strategies can result in better performance than would be expected given the Average ability testing. In addition, an unfortunate artifact of achievement test batteries is that the content of the items may underrepresent the difficulty level of the core curriculum, resulting in higher achievement scores that are discrepant from the classroom functional data.  This situation, which has become more and more common, has been informally referred to as a curriculum-based learning disability. That is, the difficulty level of the curriculum overpowers some students’ ability to perform adequately even when that ability is Average. While lower achievement scores traditionally evoke thoughts of a learning disorder, they may also signal deficient executive function skills that interfere with accessing an individual’s full abilities. For example, the deficits in encoding and retrieving information efficiently in the short or long term may signal EF problems that look like a SLD.

The Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses (PSW) approach to identifying a SLD is the most comprehensive method in that it includes normative data in the areas of ability and achievement, executive functions, and functional data. Unlike other methods, PSW does not rely solely on a formula and, instead, leans heavily on the experience, acumen, and clinical judgment of the professional evaluator to integrate all of the available information to make the best diagnosis possible.

The Emotional Demands of Parent/IEP Meetings on Professionals: Managing Toxic Induced Emotions

School professionals and parents are constantly engaged in a process of reciprocal emotional exchanges which often go unnoticed. Yet, the power of these induced emotions can drive either constructive or destructive outcomes depending on whether the team can accurately “read” what is needed to move progressively forward.

A common example of how induced emotions can influence the outcome of a meeting (and the subsequent relationship with a parent) is when teachers, administrators, or child study team members innocently seek to convey to parents the difficulties they are experiencing with their children without first anticipating the parental response. Some parents will respond to reports about their children’s struggles with feelings of overwhelming anxiety, despair, fear, or anger. The latter occurs when parents are presented with information in a manner that feels assaultive to them. That is, they are hearing that their child is not performing adequately academically or behaviorally with the implication that they need to do something about it. These same parents may already know about their child’s issues, have struggled with them, and felt as equally perplexed, frustrated, or defeated as the professionals after unsuccessful attempts at addressing the problems. Parents who feel inadequate to the task look to the school team to come up with solutions. Some may respond with panic, shame, or embarrassment, viewing their children’s problems as representative of their failures as parents. Others will feel the need to respond to the perceived attack with a counterattack meant to deflect the onslaught of the intolerable feelings induced by the school team. In these instances, parents may aggressively inquire as to whether the team has followed the IEP, and want to know what they plan to do to further address the problems. When parents react in a defensive/combative rather than collaborative manner, the school team, in turn, may resonate with the emotions induced by the parent and become frustrated and angry at requests to do more, feeling that their efforts to date were not appreciated or recognized and not feeling disposed to give. Instead, their anger may result in behaviors that will only be experienced as being withholding which, in turn, will heighten the need for the team to do more.

Professionals who hope to have a positive outcome often need to give the emotions induced by parents the “right turn.” This requires first being aware that you are “under the influence” of emotional contagion and stop to examine those feelings before responding. Holding the induced emotions is challenging because the feelings are often uncomfortable or intolerable and they drive an urge for discharge. Yet, it is these very feelings that give you the diagnostic information you need to generate an accurate emotional response. They provide a roadmap about what to say or do if you can only tolerate holding them long enough to extract the information you need.

How do you give these contagious and often toxic emotions the “right turn”? The team members need to accept the fact that, whether they like it or not, they will be exposed to these feelings and resign themselves to allowing those feelings to wash over them, remove the toxic components, and use the remainder to construct an accurate emotional response. For example, parents respond to a report about their child by implying that the team hasn’t done an adequate job and needs to do more. The team has the choice of becoming defensive and listing every single intervention attempted or accepting the parents’ feeling without agreeing with it. It is important to be willing to hear and take seriously parents’ perspective because without this first step, there is little chance that they will be willing to hear opposing views. A response that may serve to begin to bridge the gap may be, “If the situation were as you described it, I would certainly understand your position. However, the situation is actually different.”  Being accurately emotionally responsive requires that we tolerate the toxic induced emotions and use them to craft a response that addresses the emotions expressed. While this seems like a tall order, it is the best way to try to drain off toxic emotions and prevent them from morphing into something worse.


The Obstacles to Accurately Identifying a Specific Learning Disability: Limitations of Achievement Test Batteries

Child Study Team (CST) and private practice professionals who are tasked with determining the presence of a specific learning disability (SLD) have acknowledged a growing awareness that limitations of widely used achievement batteries pose an obstacle to accurately identifying the presence of a SLD.

Current achievement test batteries do not adequately mirror the core curriculum used in the classroom. As a result, students who are evaluated to determine eligibility may test out in the Average range despite having significant functional problems in the classroom. For example, students may earn Average range scores on the Pseudoword Decoding subtest of the WIAT-111 but have major problems in decoding. Similarly, that same student may perform in an Average range on the Oral Reading Fluency subtest, but exhibit significant problems with fluency in the classroom.

It is important to remember that the major test batteries offer a sample of academic skills for assessment. When the test material is easier than the core curriculum students are tasked to master, they may be deemed ineligible for support services because of their Average or Above Average range scores. Given this knowledge, professionals at school and even privately may wish to consider testing that is more geared to the curriculum. Moreover, following the general principle of amassing multiple data sources, professionals should consider that functional data (i.e. curriculum-based assessment) from the classroom teacher or parent that is different from the testing data should be further investigated. This may mean doing further assessment or formulating an assessment battery from the outset that may give the clearest picture of a student’s strengths and weaknesses. For instance, for the example mentioned above, using the Comprehensive Test of Phonological Processing to assess phonemics and the Gray Oral Reading Test to measure fluency (i.e. accuracy and efficiency) will provide more comprehensive data and present students with test material that is more challenging than either the WIAT-111 or the WJ-IV. Another tool is Easy CBM which measures reading am math skills and is geared to reflect the curriculum.

An interesting phenomenon has evolved as a result of the fact that the core curriculum is in many ways not developmentally grounded. That is, it poses tasks for students to perform that are beyond their developmental maturity. As a result, a participant at a workshop I gave on identifying learning disabilities proposed that another category of learning disability be considered: curriculum-based learning disorder. That is, a learning disorder that has its roots in the discrepancy between students’ developmental capacity to absorb the curriculum and the expectation that they should be able to master it, making them appear to be learning disordered. Are we creating learning disorders as a byproduct of the curriculum?

The Core-Selective Evaluation Process (C-SEP): Further Support for the Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses Approach (PSW) for Identifying Learning Disabilities

The recent release of “Using the Core-Selective Evaluation Process (C-SEP) With the Woodcock-Johnson IV: From Theory to Practice (Assessment Service Bulletin Number 11,” from Houghton Mifflin was a welcome sight as it provides further support for the use of the PSW model which I have been writing about for the past two years.

C-SEP mirrors the PSW principles espoused by Flanagan, Ortiz, and others as well as the Cross-Battery Assessment (XBA) procedures described by the same authors. Specifically, C-SEP utilizes the WJ IV family of instruments to gather normative data describing students’ neurocognitive profiles. Thus, both the Wechsler and the WJ IV families of instruments are tools available to diagnose a learning disability. Both approaches utilize similar principles: (1) students would have had to receive appropriate instruction to rule out lack of instruction as a variable; (2) multiple sources of information (i.e. curriculum-based assessment, grades, work samples, test scores) must be sought in justifying a referral for testing and developing a hypothesis that drives the assessment process; (3) linkages between identified processing and achievement deficits must exist; and (4) other factors (i.e. physical or intellectual disabilities; social-emotional disorders; environmental or economic disadvantage, and cultural-linguistic factors) must be ruled out. C-SEP offers its own version of XBA when it is important to expand the assessment of specific findings (i.e. administering another subtest to test out an initial finding is recommended when the WJ IV core administration includes only one subtest in a processing area).

One difference I observed is that the PSW model offers a statistical program to analyze normative data that contrasts findings associated with strengths and those with weaknesses to determine if a statistical difference exists. Moreover, the recent expansion of the PSW software includes hundreds of tests and subtests that may be utilized in performing XBA to give a more comprehensive picture of processing and achievement strengths and weaknesses. PSW also includes measures of executive functions to further elaborate on neurocognitive profiles.

Despite the differences, the road ahead appears to be clear: PSW is being recognized as the primary approach for identifying learning disorders. It is now up to legislators and departments of education in states like New Jersey to acknowledge that PSW reflects the best science we have and give child study teams “permission” to move away from the antiquated and flawed eligibility criteria in the current state code.